The linear portion of the game is linear for a reason. The willingness to intentionally limit the gameplay for such a stretch of time is such a ballsy move by the developers that you can't help but admire it.
Final Fantasy XIIIPublisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
I'd heard the stories.
Before I'd even gotten my hands on Final Fantasy XIII, I'd heard the stories. There are the stories of stretches of linear gameplay long enough to kill days from your life. There are the stories of voice acting so bad that it could destroy your will to keep playing. There are the stories of gameplay whose interactivity was so limited as to be even more of a "push the button and make it go" experience than Heavy Rain. There are the stories of a narrative so convoluted and expressed in such a scattershot manner as to be utterly indecipherable, complete with characters as infuriating and irritating as any who have graced a Final Fantasy game before (I'm looking at you, Cloud).
When a release is as highly anticipated and then as truly divisive as Final Fantasy XIII's was and is, it's nearly impossible to not hear the stories. They're everywhere. This is the sort of thing that makes it nearly impossible to derive an opinion on the game in question without basing that opinion on a response to the stories.
It's a whole bunch of criticisms that come together to form an idea of the game, an idea that can't be protected with a simple "SPOILER ALERT" warning. The tuned-in player has such a specific idea of what he's getting into that an opinion has been formed before the game even begins. And in most cases, it's not too far from the truth.
In succumbing to the stories, however, the player misses out on the full game experience. The stories are so focused on a criticism of a singular aspect of the gameplay that they often neglect to point out how this fits into the game itself. For some of the criticisms, this won't matter -- no amount of stellar gameplay or solid game design is going to forgive poor voice acting, after all -- but for many, it will. As Simon Ferrari points out in perhaps the definitive Final Fantasy XIII blog post, for example, the linear portion of the game is linear for a reason. That it finally (finally!) opens up when the characters finally find something like free will is entirely intentional, and the player will feel that shift. The parallel might be heavy handed, but the willingness to intentionally limit the gameplay for such a stretch of time is such a ballsy move by the developers that you can't help but admire it.
As for the narrative, its primary failing is in using descriptors and names that don't offer any internal documentation. When you see names like "fal'Cie" and "l'Cie" and "Cie'th", you have no idea whether they're supposed to be good things or bad things, whether they're enemies or friends, or something that you want to associate with or not. Granted, this allows the narrative to toy with your perceptions more easily, but it makes things much more difficult to follow. When you hear about the "Death Star", there's an immediate connotation. A good thing to do would be to destroy something called a "Death Star". "Han Solo", "Luke Skywalker", these sound like good guys. Even if Final Fantasy doesn't want to be as transparent as Star Wars with its characters and concepts, offering a narrative that doesn't require CliffsNotes might have been a good way to more easily invite players into the worlds of Pulse and Cocoon.
That said, the CliffsNotes are right here in the form of an evolving encyclopedia that quite literally has a story section that can be read front to back, allowing the player to catch up on the story so far. And really, it's not that confusing. It's an allegory for the quite real phenomenon of xenophobia -- that which is not like me is my enemy. Everything else is just details.
Whether you can follow the narrative or not is almost beside the point, really. The experience that Final Fantasy XIII provides is second to few, largely because despite the linearity of the first half, it makes you feel like you're walking through a living, breathing world, even more so than many "open world" games can manage to muster. The amount of time that it takes to walk from one place to the next feels almost realistic, and even if there is a clear path from one destination to the next, well, why shouldn't there be? Given the implications that are touched on by hour 15 and made clear by hour 30, doesn't it seem that those pathways may have been intentionally laid by the overseers of the population? You look around, and there is an excess of color, a strange juxtaposition of the robotic with the hypernatural. You interact with various populations not by going up and talking to every single one of them but by hearing their conversations with others. You interact with your team not by omnisciently controlling their every whim, but by giving them jobs to do, which they all actually do with some level of proficiency.
Whether this is a concept that agrees with you or not, it's the most naturally flowing Final Fantasy yet.
Much of the problem here boils down to the fact that Final Fantasy XIII exists in an awkward time for the genre. If the developers had made Final Fantasy XIII smaller than previous games in the series, there surely would have been an outcry. Final Fantasy players want length, they want a game that they can live with for a month or two.
Still, at a time when so much of our entertainment is free and/or bite-sized, when Farmville and Bejeweled reflect our need for quick bursts of gaming and experiences like Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company 2 render narrative nearly irrelevant, something like Final Fantasy XIII feels like a game out of time. Putting save points fairly close to each other allows for quick bursts of play, but there's no denying that it works best in increments of hours rather than minutes. Do we have time anymore for a blockbuster that will take over our life? If so, do we still have time for it if it doesn't reveal its true appeal until it's been played for 25 hours or more?
While these are obviously rhetorical questions whose answers can only be decided for individual games rather than gaming as a whole or even individual genres, they get at the ire some players feel toward Final Fantasy XIII. It's a massive barrier to entry for a game that players have been waiting for since the current gaming generation began. Get past the barrier, however, and you find a rich, beautifully realized world that you won't mind spending 60 or 70 hours in.